Apologies to Keanu Reeves, but that's exactly the sort of stunned reaction provoked by Wargame: AirLand Battle. This supersize real-time strategizer set during a Cold War-era WWIII is one of those all-in games that practically punches you in the face with its complexity when you fire it up for the first time. But even though this game is so daunting initially that you want to begin your time with the game by studying Clausewitz, the design is so slick and the combat so deviously challenging that you can't help being drawn into its what-if web pitting the Warsaw Pact against NATO.
The modes, at least, are straightforward enough. You get a suite of tutorials. There are four solo/multiplayer campaigns, each covering different theaters of World War III in Northern Europe circa 1985. These play out like board games, in that you maneuver units on big turn-based tactical maps of Scandinavia before getting in close on detailed strategic battlefield maps when the guns start going off. Era-specific events pop up during the campaigns as well that alter battle conditions and add flavor to the Cold War setting.
So don't be surprised when that rabble-rousing Vaclav Havel starts mouthing off and causing trouble for your Warsaw Pact. Skirmish mode lets you go toe-to-toe with foes online or off in either small-scale matches or huge 10-versus-10 affairs. There is even something of a Warhammer or collectible card game vibe here: you can set up decks of units based on different themes like era or nationality and then take them into battle against all comers. You get a lot for your money when it comes to the sheer weight of the game options. A thriving community is playing online right now, too, so you can always find fresh opponents to keep battling even long after the single-player options have lost their luster.
Delve a little deeper, however, and you soon find that you need to devote serious time to learning all that this intricate example of modern warfare in a box has to offer. For instance, the game features hundreds of different units, each of which has been loaded up with detailed weapon modeling, armor ratings, firing ranges, and all sorts of other stats that are extremely helpful when you want to roll your T-72 tanks through the Swedish countryside. Units run the full gamut of, well, just about everything you would find on the air or land, with infantry, tanks, jets, choppers, bombers, AA guns, recon trucks, and so on.
Not much here comes easy. The tutorials let you dip your toe into some deep waters, but they're really more like a series of easy-ish to tough missions that serve as an introduction to the combat system. Oddly, they all lack meaningful instructions regarding what you're supposed to be doing. These scenarios just dump you into the middle of a battle with very basic orders, like telling you to start a close-quarters scrap by emptying troop carriers of their riflemen cargo.
As much as the game can be viewed as a complicated depiction of contemporary warfare, it remains somewhat simplistic on the surface. This is all about combat, first, last, and always. There are no bases to build or resources to gather. That said, there are plenty of hair-pulling moments early on just dealing with sending units into battle. But there is a strong rock-paper-scissors formula functioning in the background.
Tanks, fighter planes, and so forth are fully featured and realistic, with all of the battlefield strengths and weaknesses that you would expect. Anyone with even rudimentary RTS or wargame experience can figure out the basics just by using common sense. You don't need to know right away that T-72A tanks can fire seven rounds per minute with their main guns, or that your Mi-24V chopper missiles have an accuracy rating of 11. You need to figure these things out eventually to have any chance of winning the tougher campaigns, but there is a nice learning process where you pick up all of the nitty-gritty along the way.
The minimal interface helps immensely. Units are maneuvered with standard mouse scrolling and typical use of the left- and right-click buttons. All of the onscreen controls are right in your face. There aren't many of them to bother with, either. The focus is a hands-on style where you grab units and order them around. Two clicks are all that it takes to pull up all the key information about any unit in the game. So you never need to fumble around or go on any sort of expedition into nestled menu screens to check unit stats or ratings.
Still, there is some room for complaint. Being able to dumb things down a little and switch to more simplistic numbers for units, like attack and defense ratings, speed, and so forth, would make the game much more approachable in the beginning. These numbers would have really smoothed out the initial learning curve and added a pick-up-and-play dimension that the game currently lacks.
At any rate, the gameplay in Wargame: ALB is so good that it draws you in despite the heavy detail. You're always battling your opponent, not the game itself. There is a superb split focus between the simple us-versus-them strategy that you can recognize from wargames as standard as Risk, and the tremendous depth that comes from all those stats that accurately model every facet of combat. The one flaw comes with the strict time limit on battles in campaign mode. You get just 20 minutes to meet the mission goals, and the whole thing winds up a draw if you fail, no matter how much of a beating you might be laying on the baddies when the clock ticks down to zero.
Map design is also brilliant in its mix of complexity and simplicity. There are multiple ways to secure your objectives, taking advantage of different units, exploiting one set of terrain over another, and so forth. Every map offers you a lot of choices, none of which are ever flatly wrong unless you're tackling everything head-on like Rambo. Do you flank an enemy position or hit it head-on? Take your tanks down the speedier roads or run them across the slower countryside? Sneak infantry through the woods toward an enemy-held town or get them into position on the high ground overlooking the bad guys? Maps open up the more that you play them and begin to figure out just how many choices you have with every move that you make.
The visuals and sound don't quite keep pace with the rest of the game. They are more than serviceable, however. Maps and unit models look realistic, if not exactly lifelike. Everything does its job, especially the terrain, which has enough detail to properly depict such features as deep forests and swampy lowlands. And the game moves along quite quickly despite the size of some of the maps, never bogging down even a mid-grade gaming system. The graphics only get bad when the camera zooms in close on urban scenes; things like picket fences go from pleasant to pixelated at ground level. Audio is a bit more obnoxious. Combat booms and bangs sound good enough, but the order acknowledgements are lacking in variety, and both the constant warning klaxons and the blaring martial music are extremely annoying.
Smart and rewarding, Wargame: ALB is one of those rare strategy games that give more back to you the more you put into playing them. It isn't exactly user-friendly, although it is easier to sidle up to than most games of this type because of the elegant design that blends combat basics with the depth that comes with the detailed modeling of hundreds of different units from the Cold War. It is an impressive design in just about every way, remaining at least somewhat accessible for all manner of strategy fans while not compromising any of its depth or details for more hardcore players looking for a serious wargame.